A Way to Find Everything
It says something about the world of searching for stuff on the Internet that a 21-year-old Singaporean guy can patch together a Web site that makes the process of searching 20 times quicker. But what does this say, exactly?
It certainly doesn't say that finding information is slow. Google, the undisputed king of search engines -- as any Web site that indexes the Internet is called -- returns results faster than you can blink (about a 15th of a second, usually). If you knew what the Internet was like before Google you'll appreciate the sheer unadulterated brilliance of the Google experience, and why it has become so popular now it's a verb (to "Google someone" being the background check you run on a potential employee, a colleague, that week's blind date, etc.).
What it does point to is the fact that despite Google's supremacy it doesn't always find what you want. It also points to something else: That despite Google's success, or perhaps because of it, dozens of other search engines have entered the fray, hoping for a slice of the lucrative action (Google makes most of its money from the advertising that appears alongside the search results.)
These two factors are what prompted William Chee of Singapore to set up his own search engine, TurboScout (www.turboscout.com3). Mr. Chee was frustrated that, knowing Google didn't find everything, he had to type the same search string (a fancy term for the words you are looking for) into lots of different search engines. So he put together a Web page that was smart enough to let him type the words just once, but which would then run off to all the search engines he liked. The results would then appear as normal, but below that a frame would link to the results from each of the other search engines. Simple and very effective. When his friends started raving about it, Mr. Chee decided earlier this year to launch his tool as a public service.
What he did isn't that unique. Others have aggregated search results from other engines before, but Mr. Chee has managed a couple of things that make TurboScout a real boon. First, the interface is very simple and loads quickly. Second, he's grouped together the best search engines he could find -- 90 of them -- into seven categories, from the Web to audio and video. This saves the user time hunting down the most suitable search engine, or group of search engines. Third, he's prepared a small slice of computer code -- called an extension -- that users of the Firefox browser can add so they can access TurboScout straight from their search box (the little window in the top right corner of the Firefox browser).
All this illustrates how seriously Mr. Chee has thought this through. He came up with the idea in the middle of last year, and was encouraged by his friends to develop it last November. It's taken him about 370 hours to set up the site -- three hours every week night, eight on the weekends -- plus he spends about 30 hours a week maintaining it. That he has managed to do it in the few spare hours he has in between compulsory military service makes his achievement all the more impressive.
Mr. Chee has been helped by his brother Richard, who has hosted the site on servers owned by his global market research and recruitment company. After initial alarm that Mr. Chee was spending all his waking hours playing computer games, his parents have been supportive, bringing him food and reminding him to sleep. His girlfriend, he says, has "stood by me all these years and believed in me, motivating me when I needed it most." Mr. Chee has no plans right now to make money out of the project, although eventually he's hoping for some investors to help him expand what TurboScout can do.
I recommend giving it a try. I hadn't heard of several of the search engines that TurboScout includes -- ithaki, Barry's, Cydral, Fazzle, Singing Fish, all new to me -- which is what makes it so good. But this raises a bigger point that goes to the heart of why something like TurboScout has found a niche. The problem is that the Internet is getting very big, very fast -- one survey counted more than 300 million registered Web sites in January, double that of July 2002. Another survey, measuring the number of Web sites actually connected to the Internet, found only 62 million in April 2005, but it still represented, more or less, a doubling over mid-2002. So, even while Google is getting better at indexing all those pages -- it has indexed more than eight billion pages at the time of this writing, against a little over two billion in July 2002 -- it still can't hope to find all of them.
Vertical Waves of the Future
There are several possible solutions to this. Google is exploring a few of them, including offering better ways of searching for specific things -- from your UPS or FedEx shipment (just enter the shipping number into Google and you can find out how far it's traveled), to mapping services (if you live in some U.S. towns, you can see a satellite map of where a taxi company's cabs are on the road). Or, say, you want to find out the population of Mumbai, just type "population Mumbai" into Google. The answer will appear above all the usual links (not always the right answer, but then again this particular service was only launched a week or so ago).
But, Google's frenetic innovation aside, expect to see a lot more so-called vertical search engines that specialize in topics: Oodle (www.oodle.com4), for example, for finding jobs, cars, houses or services; GoBelle (gobelle.com5) for parents; and AcronymFinder (http://acronymfinder.com6/) for, er, acronyms. As the Internet continues to double in size every few years, this sort of highly specialized, focused search might be the wave of the future. People may even be willing to pay for it.
But in the meantime, you could do worse than visiting the Web site of sleep-deprived, meal-forgetting Mr. Chee, who may, just may, have come up with the answer to all our prayers: a search engine that finds everything.